Paying the Price for Engaging in Office Politics

Don Tennant
Slide Show

10 Reasons Why You Should Avoid Office Politics

Learn why you're far better off avoiding office politics at all costs.

In a post I wrote in October, "10 Reasons to Avoid Office Politics," I argued that you don't have to play the office politics game any more than you have to engage in any other form of corruption to advance your career, and that you're far better off doing everything in your power to avoid office politics at all costs. Several readers who commented on the post suggested that I'm living in fantasy land.


One reader had this to say:

Like it or not, office politics is a game we all get pulled into at sometime whether we want to or not. If your coworker is playing it and your boss is playing it and you are not, you will lose. If you don't know how to play the game, you will lose.

Another echoed that sentiment:

I actually took a professional development course about office politics, and the lesson was: swim or be eaten alive by the sharks. Play the game, or it plays you.

Neil Giarratana, a retired multinational CEO and author of the book, "CEO Priorities: Master the Art of Surviving at the Top," addressed the problem of office politics in his book. So when I spoke with Giarratana recently, I asked him what his response would be to those readers. His view differs from mine in that he sees office politics as an inescapable fact of life, while I'm convinced that it can and eventually will disappear from the typical workplace. But that's inconsequential. What matters is that he has some critical insights about the importance of avoiding-and suppressing-office politics that need to be shared:

People are jealous of other people; people do not like other people getting ahead of them; people are worried about their station in life, and about being criticized. People are people, wherever you find them. If you assume that, and that's a critical assumption, then you're going to have office politics. So what does the CEO do to at least mitigate or push back some of the office politics going on? There are many things he can do. First, he's got to be informed. So the smart guy is going to know where the problems are-he's going to know where the ringleaders and the gangs are. He's going to know that because among other things, he's going to have people who are loyal to him listening out there and telling him what's going on. Is he playing the politics game? Yes, he has to. He's trying to fight politics, and the only way you're going to fight politics, unfortunately, is by being a little political oneself. That's just a fact-there's no changing that.

Second, Giarratana said, the CEO needs to be able to anticipate what's coming so he can nip it in the bud:

There are many, many people out there engaging in office politics who think they can, by ganging up, by mobbing, by doing all of these things, they can force an issue, and create the prerequisites for it happening. In other words, they're sitting there in their arrogance and assuming that there's a self-fulfilling prophecy coming around the corner. The smart CEO is going to anticipate that, and have information out there within his general information flow that addresses those very issues. He can anticipate and block that kind of activity.

Third-and this is the part that really needs to be understood by the "play the game or it plays you" crowd-people need to know that if they engage in office politics, there will be a price to pay:

A technique I've used a number of times, knowing the ringleaders, is I would get them in the room with me, or one of them in the room, and I would start bitterly complaining about what's going on-playing the game. I would say to this person, 'I'm sure you're not involved in that,' and they'd say, 'No, I'm not involved in that at all.' And of course then I would ask for their advice-how do you solve this problem? I've put them in a very bad position. But I've also signaled to them-because they're smart, and I've let them know very indirectly that I know they are the person [I have a problem with], they're going to know that I'm giving them a warning. At the end of the day, if it doesn't work, you're going to be sitting in your office, and you're going to be telling that person, 'You're done.' When you do that, and you take that person out, you've got to watch out, because these office politics people and these gangs usually have hangers-on. And there's a price to be paid for hanging on and for marching with the guy. A lot of people don't understand that there's a price to be paid. So I have often warned people in a nice way, in large meetings, 'There may be certain people who may not agree with this, but I warn you people, be very careful of where you put your allegiance. Because at the end of the day, the allegiance we all have here is to our customers and to our stakeholders, and to the people we're working with who are developing and executing our strategy. Anything else, I'm going to see it, and I will react, I can assure you.'

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